Formula One safety opponents must learn to distinguish safety from risk

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Unsurprisingly the prelude to the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend was dominated not by the tightening title fight but by the ferocious debate over motorsport safety.

    Between the British and Hungarian races the FIA and the sport’s commercial rights holder came together to push through the Formula One strategy group the 2018 implementation of the so-called halo head protection device, much to the chagrin of many.

    Rare is it that safety and aesthetics are fought with equal might, but those were the lines drawn in the closing fortnight of the first half of the season, and this column weighed in last week to the effect that superficiality should never be allowed to outweigh the science, as the FIA has decided is the case.

    But aside from the aesthetics and the nebulous idea of what comprises the ‘DNA’ of Formula One car design, interesting has been the argument put forward to the effect that mortal danger – the risking of life, the possibility of death – is the beating heart of Formula One.

    Whether it is that the fans get a kick out of watching our athletes put their lives on the lines or that the drivers get a rush from risking it all, is there any base to this principal?

    “Definitely I would say danger doesn’t excite me in any way,” Williams driver Lance Stroll said when asked by this writer if he shared the sentiment that danger equates to satisfaction. “We’re still fighting on track and we’re still going out to qualify to try to do the best possible lap – that’s where we find the excitement.

    “I don’t think it’s in knowing you can die that excites you. That’s not cool if you ask me. I wouldn’t sign up for that.”

    Indeed, driver safety is something that drivers do consider, perhaps contrary to the idea that they are recklessly fearless.

    “For sure you always think about safety,” Stroll continued. “You have to evaluate the risks you’re taking on track, because not only are you putting yourself at risk but you’re putting other drivers at risk, and that becomes tricky.

    “That doesn’t change whether it’s safer in one car or in another car – I just use my head in the best possible way in every situation.”

    When put by this writer to Daniel Ricciardo, a driver fast becoming defined by his gutsy and aggressive racecraft, he too agreed.

    “I don’t think it makes us sound like we’re less brave if we’re worried about getting hit in the head with a wheel,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Why do we wear a helmet?’ We wear a helmet to avoid getting in the head with things, so this [halo] is like an additional helmet.”

    Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo, of Red Bull, is interviewed by the media.

    (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images).

    But after the danger of losing your life comes an important distinction of terms.

    “The danger for sure gives it excitement,” Ricciardo added. “But for me the danger is not getting hit in the head with a wheel, the danger is pushing the car to the limit and nearly crashing on every corner on a street circuit or something.

    “Knowing if you go for an overtake you might end up crashing because maybe the gap disappears at the apex or something – that kind of danger I enjoy.”

    This, straight from the mouths of today’s Formula One drivers, expresses simply the gap between the safety debate and reality: risk is fun, danger is not.

    It may sound ambiguous, but there is a significant difference between danger and risk. Danger is the putting the drivers’ lives in harm’s way by neglecting safety, whereas risk is ensuring that there remains competitive challenge in the sport – a driver risks the perfect lap by pushing his braking points, by taking more kerb, by inching closer to the barriers at Monaco and by risking losing his lap or ruining his race.

    Formula One ought to celebrate risk because the balancing of risk and reward is the distillation of a racing driver’s job to extract the maximum out of the car.

    Similarly, the idea that fans travel in their masses – as they did in Budapest, where the crowd was 200,000 spectators strong over three days – to bask in the glow of a blood sport, to hope to see injury and perhaps fatality, is sickening, yet this is at the heart of those who argue that danger is inherent to Formula One. It is an inescapable truth at the foundation of that principal.

    However, seeing drivers take risks to beat their rivals is what makes Formula One tick, and implementing the likes of the halo and the myriad of other safety devices and ideas the FIA has introduced over the decades means that drivers can take those risks without putting themselves in danger.

    It’s about time we understood that difference.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (15)

    • August 1st 2017 @ 10:44am
      Cento said | August 1st 2017 @ 10:44am | ! Report

      Good article Michael. I’m a bit torn as I get the need to improve safety but F1 is also about glamour (as much as I detest that word) and the cars do “need” to look good. The push for safety when it was championed by Jackie Stewart and others was to save drivers lives in incidents that I think were common in F1 and still are, that is, running wide or spinning into barriers, rollovers and collisions with other cars (as could have happened to Daniel on the weekend when he spun). To this end I think they’ve done a great job in cockpit safety and strength, tethered wheels etc.
      In my view, what has taken (or nearly taken) driver’s lives more recently in F1 and you can correct me if I’m wrong is what I’d call the “freak” event. Senna being killed by a piece of his own suspension, Bianchi running under a recovery vehicle, Massa being his by a broken spring. Then there was even Johannsen hitting a deer once! I don’t know whether Halo at that time would have changed anything, maybe it might have, but if we lose a driver next year, God forbid, where will the FIA go next?

      • Columnist

        August 1st 2017 @ 9:20pm
        Michael Lamonato said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:20pm | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, mate. I definitely agree with you that the cars need to look good, but I believe the halo will prove a temporary solution until either it’s remodelled to be more attractive while retaining its function or a shield-like concept replaces it. It’s a guess on my part, but I’d say the halo won’t last more than 24 months.

        It’s probably fair to say driver fatalities in F1 have been unusual incidents. Jules Bianchi’s crash, for example, will almost certainly never be repeated and was unlikely to be preventable no matter the head protection solution. However, head protection isn’t being introduced in response to fatalities alone but also to near misses, of which we’ve had a fair few in recent times. Schumacher and Liuzzi’s 2010 Abu Dhabi crash, Grosjean’s 2012 Spa crash, Raikkonen and Alonso’s Austria 2015 crash — all were near misses that could’ve had grave consequences, and the halo would have offered protection in all of them.

    • Roar Rookie

      August 1st 2017 @ 12:01pm
      Jamie Mills said | August 1st 2017 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

      Quality article Michael, I agree with your points completely. As a race driver myself, I can only echo the sentiments of the drivers you spoke to. Risk is exciting. The risk of going for a passing move that may or may not end in tears, or the risk of hitting a barrier or going off the circuit while pushing the car to the limit that is. Danger to your personal safety or that of others is not, especially when there is a viable solution that lowers the likelihood of any serious injury or worse. Like many others, I don’t particularly like the look of the halo device, but safety improvements can never be ignored. The manufacturers that are associating their brands with the sport to showcase their cutting edge technology can surely only benefit from safety progression as well. Danger doesn’t sell road cars. Good to see a positive piece on this.

      • Columnist

        August 1st 2017 @ 9:22pm
        Michael Lamonato said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:22pm | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, Jamie! It’s always good to hear driver comments on this issue since at the end of the day it’s your lives that are at risk in the cockpit.

        I know I’ve never gone to a race looking forward to seeing some serious injury, so I’ve never really understood the danger argument. Good point on the marketing side, too — no manufacturer should want any driver to be injured in one of its cars. Improving safety really is a no-brainer in that respect.

    • August 1st 2017 @ 3:37pm
      Dexter The Hamster said | August 1st 2017 @ 3:37pm | ! Report

      Nice read once again.

      Hopefully this gets the teams moving closer to closed cockpits, which I think will look a lot better. I know there will be those bemoaning the death of open cockpit racing and the DNA of F1, but to those I say have a look at the McLaren concept F1 car from a year or two ago. I know its just at the conceptual stage, but the quicker we get there the better, they look awesome!! Shows they can look cool, be the world leader in motor sport and still be safe.

      PS: KMag and Hulk once again proving that F1 is better than The Bold And The Beautiful!!!!!

      • August 1st 2017 @ 4:12pm
        Cento said | August 1st 2017 @ 4:12pm | ! Report

        Not sure about closed cockpits. I was inclined to think they’d be a better option but then what about wet weather (wipers on a F1 car?!), oil and rubber. Being a closed cockpit it’s not like the driver can use a tear off and with many races having only 1 stop it leaves a driver vulnerable to impaired vision after that stop. But I do agree, the concept cars do look great with the closed cockpit.

        • Columnist

          August 1st 2017 @ 9:26pm
          Michael Lamonato said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:26pm | ! Report

          These are the questions that will naturally have to be answered. Perhaps wipers will be necessary, or maybe the size and shape of the F1 cockpit will mean it won’t be such an issue — it will certainly need further research and is thus some while away, but I believe it’ll be doable one way or another.

      • Columnist

        August 1st 2017 @ 9:24pm
        Michael Lamonato said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:24pm | ! Report

        Thanks, mate! I agree: closed cockpits will be the future of F1, and that’s not a bad thing. Some of those concepts are reachable, so F1 doesn’t have to abandon its looks to improve safety.

        I’m personally a fan of the Magnussen-Hulkenberg #ballsgate.

    • Roar Guru

      August 1st 2017 @ 5:25pm
      Jawad Yaqub said | August 1st 2017 @ 5:25pm | ! Report

      Great argument Michael.

      Though I’m still against the Halo decision because I believe it’s something that needs to be refined and tested further. In theory, the Sheild seems like a more appropriate solution and I’m surprised that after one test they decided to can it – despite the fact that all the future concept cars’ have closed cockpits that mirror the Sheild idea.

      It’s not because of its appearance, but more so the practicality of Halo that has me dubious. Could it do more harm than good even? Time will tell and I certainly hope that it isn’t the case. With such a paramount issue as this, it would be great in the future to see Ross Brawn and his team of engineers really invest the time to research, develop and test it all – independently from the teams too, there’s none of this ‘they get an advantage, because they tested’ nonsense.

      • Columnist

        August 1st 2017 @ 9:13pm
        Michael Lamonato said | August 1st 2017 @ 9:13pm | ! Report

        There’s been a great deal of development in the halo already, and in Budapest there was a presentation to the media centre — which I think should perhaps be made public to ensure everyone has the opportunity to understand it — that assessed the effect it would have had on a significant number of accidents in recent history. In all of examples the effect was either positive or neutral. Don’t forget that forward-facing roll hoops have been under development for years, long before ‘halo’ as we know it today started being bolted onto cars.

        The shield hasn’t been canned, but it just won’t be ready in time for next season — which is already one year later than the sport agreed to implement head protection. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the solution that eventually replaces the halo looked a lot like the shield or the aeroscreen.

    • August 2nd 2017 @ 5:40am
      Tyler said | August 2nd 2017 @ 5:40am | ! Report

      To me this is just an over reaction to the fact that risk and danger exists in motor racing. What problem are they trying to solve? Serious incidents in racing around the world are rare, they’re basically non-existent in F1 and which of those would have been prevented by the halo? None of them. The nature of open wheel racing is that your head sticks out of the car. F1 is an open wheel series. Every driver has raced in various open wheel series their entire lives on their way to F1, and if they aren’t comfortable with driving open wheel cars anymore, there’s plenty of other top racing leagues that have closed cars. Ironically most of which have had far greater recent safety issues than F1 has. They’re changing the DNA of the sport to guard against a theoretical danger that hasn’t even happened in F1. Open wheel racing is open wheel racing, nobody is forcing anybody to drive cars they aren’t comfortable with. The argument for the halo is in the same category as “Why don’t they have speed limits?” and “Why don’t they line the track with pillows?” Both share the mindless talking point that “well it’s safer”. So is not getting in a car and doing 220mph in the first place.

      • Columnist

        August 2nd 2017 @ 1:19pm
        Michael Lamonato said | August 2nd 2017 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, Tyler, but I have to disagree. F1 has been relatively lucky to come away with very few serious injuries or fatalities in recent decades, but the number of near misses is what the halo is reacting to. For example, Schumacher and Liuzzi’s 2010 Abu Dhabi crash, Grosjean’s 2012 Spa crash, and Raikkonen and Alonso’s Austria 2015 crash were all mere centimetres away from serious disasters. The halo — and in the future other head protection devices — could have mitigated the danger in those crashes.

        Head protection has never been about comfort. Drivers aren’t more or less brave or afraid because it’s being implemented or not, just as they’re no more brave or afraid when driving with or without a helmet. It’s simply about the fact that Formula One has a path down which it can prevent drivers from suffering serious injuries or worse in the event of a crash. Your argument that this alters the DNA of the sport implies that death is inherent in Formula One, which just isn’t an acceptable principal to take in any modern sport. Those days are long gone.

        • August 3rd 2017 @ 5:14am
          Tyler said | August 3rd 2017 @ 5:14am | ! Report

          You missed my point by a wide margin I think. I’m not implying at all that death is inherent to Formula One, my point is literally the exact opposite. Death ISN’T inherent to Formula One and hasn’t been for a long time. Yet the FIA is over reacting to problems in other series to introduce a device that changes the very definition of Formula One as an open wheel series. We’re at the absolute pinnacle of safety in F1, it’s an incredibly bizarre time to suddenly claim open wheel racing as an entire concept is just plain too dangerous and Formula One can’t continue as such. 1 death in 23 years, and the halo wouldn’t have even made a shred of difference in that case. There isn’t actually a problem with the sport they’re trying to solve, this is just a matter of saying any and all risk is unacceptable which is absurd in motorsport. It’s a classic case of overreaction and it didn’t even come from the drivers. Let’s not pretend either that this is unanimously accepted and it’s only a fringe group of death lovers (as you labeled me) that are simply “safety opponents”. The opinion among fans, is thoroughly against. The opinion among drivers is divided and controversial at best. I’d be willing to bet if they allowed the drivers to vote anonymously it would fail to even garner 50% support. The drivers are divided, the fans don’t want it, the car designers don’t want it, and the safety benefits are shaky at best. It’ll stop a wheel assembly at 150mph, great, that’s happened 0 times in decades. It also impedes a driver from getting out of the car, which actually happens all the time. Alonso would have been pinned upside down in Australia just last year. Causing new problems and changing the DNA of the sport in order to solve a problem that doesn’t exist is why I’m against. Not because I think death is inherent to Formula One.

          • Columnist

            August 3rd 2017 @ 8:02am
            Michael Lamonato said | August 3rd 2017 @ 8:02am | ! Report

            As I said, the halo isn’t being implemented simply in response to preventable fatalities — undoubtedly some head injuries have spurred on development, but to say it’s been designed because of deaths in other series is incorrect.

            We’re talking, importantly, about the many near misses that F1 was lucky to get away with. We could very easily have multiple fatalities in this sport in the last decade were it for a fortunate few centimetres. The FIA is doing its job and being preventative rather than reactive in this sense.

            Pleasingly the FIA has made its presentation to the media public. It’s worth a watch because it outlines the many, many crashes and incidents in which the halo would have eliminated the very serious risk of injury or death, even when injury was avoided by chance: https://youtu.be/AYkGjUHstKY. It also addresses the Alonso-stuck-in-the-car story that’s been doing the rounds, which you referenced.

            Don’t get me wrong, you’re right to say motor racing will also be dangerous to some degree. You can’t travel at these speeds and not have danger, but it would be negligent not to try to ensure accidents within our control are mitigated. Moreover, imagine a serious accident did happen which could have been prevented by a device the sport decided not introduce just because it looked bad. It’d be a massive scandal. There’s just no choice but to procede.

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